Like the proverbial crook who returns to the scene of the crime, the architects of the Bush administration's torture program are suddenly ubiquitous in its defense. Oddly enough, it doesn't seem to be a coordinated effort. It's just coincidence, mixed with the understandable belief that no negative repercussions will follow from doing so.
Of course, those defenses usually begin with a rejection of the idea that "enhanced interrogation" techniques, like the simulated drowning process of waterboarding, are torture at all. "It wasn’t torture," former vice president Dick Cheney told an audience at American University on Thursday. And what's more: "If I would have to do it all over again, I would," he said. "The results speak for themselves." This position is key, as the protestors outside the venue calling for Cheney's indictment on war crimes make clear. If the use of waterboarding against prisoners is considered torture, then Cheney and the administration in which he played a prominent role are complicit.
Both points of Cheney's contention are debatable. The current president doesn't distinguish between waterboarding and torture, nor did President Teddy Roosevelt, when America used it in the Philippines. A 2011 editorial in the Washington Post questioned both the need for the practice and the utility. The results by no means speak for themselves, given how many questions exist about what they uncovered.
Earlier this week, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared on the Colbert Report, not as a guest, but as a guest of a guest. Stephen Colbert was interviewing Errol Morris, who recently finished a documentary looking at Rumsfeld's tenure, The Known Unknown. Colbert showed a clip in which Morris interviews Rumsfeld about the "torture memos," legal briefs created by the Bush Justice Department to allow techniques like waterboarding. Democracy Now has a partial transcript:
ERROL MORRIS: What about all these so-called torture memos?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, there were what? One or two or three. I don’t know the number, but there were not all of these so-called memos. They were mischaracterized as torture memos, and they came not out of the Bush administration, per se; they came out of the U.S. Department of Justice, blessed by the attorney general, the senior legal official of the United States of America, having been nominated by a president and confirmed by the United States Senate overwhelmingly. Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did. I’ll chalk that one up.
ERROL MORRIS: Was the reaction unfair?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, I’ve never read them.
ERROL MORRIS: Really?
DONALD RUMSFELD: No. I’m not a lawyer. What would I know?
Differentiating between the Bush administration and the Department of Justice is a peculiar line of argument. As Morris says in the Democracy Now interview, Rumsfeld "retreats into a kind of strange Looney Tunes world of language, where he thinks if he can just find the right set of words, everything will be OK." And it's important to note the next words out of Rumsfeld's mouth in the clip above: that he never read the memos anyway.
The man who wrote those memos was John Yoo, who was then serving as deputy assistant attorney general at Justice (but not, per Rumsfeld, as part of the administration). Yoo appeared at Drexel University in Philadelphia even as Cheney was speaking in Washington. "Yoo and other Justice Department lawyers concluded that only interrogation techniques inflicting severe pain or severe and permanent bodily injury, such as organ damage, and death were banned from use by U.S. forces," the Philadelphia Enquirer writes about Yoo's appearance. His argument on Thursday mirrored Cheney's: "I do stand by the line that we drew." That despite a 2010 Department of Justice review indicating that his legal analysis was flawed.
Early in his administration, President Obama told the CIA that he didn't support prosecutions for the agency's role in the torture program. In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder officially ruled out any prosecutions based on the "enhanced interrogation" systems on the whole.
That position may become more politically unstable. The CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee are embroiled in a fierce dispute over a report that the latter has drafted which outlines how the CIA's torture system worked. According to one report, the Senate committee learned that CIA torture may have predated those memos, and that the CIA may have exaggerated the utility of information it got from one tortured detainee. The Senate appears to have also found instances in which the CIA offered public statements that conflict with its private analysis, thanks to a report it obtained through a CIA error.
The White House has so far stood behind the CIA in that dispute. It's not in the administration's interest to go to war with the CIA, particularly not as it is defending the NSA with all hands on deck. Nor is it in Rumsfeld's or Cheney's or Yoo's interest for there to suddenly be an interest in prosecuting people for torture. But speaker's fees and publicity being the lures that they are, it's hard for those three to resist. And so far, they've seen no need to do so.